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The Prison Industrial Complex in West Michigan

November 4, 2015


After attending the forum last week on policing in Grand Rapids and coming away feeling like there was little new information, little challenge to the function of policy locally, no mobilization of people to organize against police violence and no serious discussion of root causes or systems of oppression, it seems appropriate to push some of those ideas.

It is also something that has been part of ongoing study, reflection, discussion and brainstorming about how to deal with police violence and the larger prison industrial complex, since GRIID has been hosting a class on the history of policing in the US, using Kristian Williams book, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America

This will be the first in a series of articles in response to the larger, more structural issues surrounding policing and the prison industrial complex in West Michigan. For a good article that critiques the GRPD in recent months, we recommend the article, Controlling the Narrative, Controlling the Streets. What we will present in this article is some understanding of what the Prison Industrial Complex looks like in West Michigan.prison-industrial-complex-2

As writers, activists and organizers have been saying for years, police violence and police repression must be seen as part of a larger system of oppression that is called the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). The PIC has many components, which are summarized here. These components are not listed in any particular order, but represent a larger inter-locking system of oppression. For the purposes of this article, we are mainly looking at data from Kent County.

Law Enforcement – In Kent County, there are several law enforcement agencies that police our communities on a daily basis, such as the GRPD, the police departments from surrounding municipalities in Kent County, the Sheriff’s Department, the Michigan State Police and several federal agencies like Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All of the law enforcement agencies are made up of several thousand people who spend the bulk of their time policing people who are experiencing poverty, from communities of color or immigrant communities. The collective budgets of these agencies are astronomically high and should give us an indication of what the priorities are of government. For instance, according to the Grand Rapids City Budget for 2015, the GRPD consume $55 Million in public funds , while the Kent County Sheriff’s Department consumes a little over $56 Million of public funds. prisonindustrialcomplex

The legal system – Once people are arrested they end up in the legal system, which involves judges, attorneys, probation officers, and a whole slew of people that “manage” those whom the system has no decided to punish. Going before a judge is often a very demeaning process, especially for marginalized populations. When looking at the cost of just the local Circuit and District Courts, that adds another $31 million dollars of public money supporting the PIC.

Incarceration – If you have been charged with a crime and are unable to pay fines or can’t afford a lawyer, you might have to spend time in the Kent County Jail or the Kent County Juvenile  Detention Facility. The Kent County Jail, according to their own reporting, has 1,147 beds and is now listed as one of the “top one hundred jails in the country.” The budget for operating the Kent County Jail for fiscal year 2015 is $35 Million, which is part of the $56 million budget of the Sheriff’s Department.

Normalizing Street Crime/Criminalizing Communities – There are numerous entities in our society that contribute to the criminalization of certain communities, particularly communities of color and those experiencing poverty. Some of those entities are organized religion, educational system and the dominant commercial culture. However, more than any other entity, news agencies overtly perpetuate the criminalization of certain communities on a daily basis. For years we logged the racial make up of those 19120823-largeaccused of crime in the local news media and communities of color were always disproportionately represented. This criminalizing of people of color is the result of how news agencies function. They emphasize urban crime over rural crime and they emphasize street crime over corporate crime. The cumulative effect of people seeing images like the one featured here to the right, that appeared on MLive today (11/4/2015).

Social Services, Social Management – When people end up in the PIC, their family members often must interact with the social service system. Social Service agencies might
provided needed services to people caught up in the PIC, but often they perpetuate harm and prop up the very function of the PIC by not challenging the root causes of why people are caught up in the PIC to begin with. In many ways, social service agencies act as a buffer between systems of power and marginalized communities, wherein they can redirect public rage against the injustice of the PIC to focusing on individual behavior.Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 1.20.31 PM

Systems of Oppression – Lastly, it is important that we acknowledge the major role that various systems of oppression play in the creation and perpetuation of the Prison Industrial Complex. Capitalism creates tremendous economic disparities, White Supremacy informs and enforces the normalization of a disproportionate number of people of color who end up in the PIC. (a point which Michelle Alexander makes in her book The New Jim Crow) Patriarchy plays a vital role in the PIC by promoting gender violence and then using more violence to “teach perpetrators a lesson.” This violence deeply impacts both women and men. Heterosexism is also a system of oppression at play in the PIC, which is why there is a disproportionately high rate of queer youth and those who identify as transgender in the PIC. Lastly, US Imperialism plays a major role in the PIC, since many people who come to the US as immigrants are fleeing political and economic violence often driven by US imperialism. And since the US is deeply stricken with xenophobia, immigrants are highly suspect and targeted by law enforcement, resulting in millions of immigrants in detention across the US.

If we are serious about addressing the role and function of policing in West Michigan, then we have to not only have to understand the interlocking systems within the Prison Industrial Complex, we need to creatively engage in radically new ways of addressing root causes of problems that are currently dealt with through arrest and incarceration.

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